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A Ray of Hope in the Budget Saga?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

The news over the past several days on what progress is being made in resolving the FY2011 budget impasse has been pretty dismal. Politico, National Journal and The Hill all have been publishing stories that say, in a nutshell, that the House and Senate remain far apart on what to do about the budget and a government shutdown on April 8 seemed highly likely. Tonight, however, National Journal (subscription required) reports that Vice President Joe Biden is saying that the two sides have agreed on the dollar level of cuts, if not where they will come from or what to do about policy riders.

The government is operating on a short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires on April 8. Congress must pass some sort of appropriation to keep the government operating after that. Attention is currently focused on passing a "full-year" CR to fund the remaining six months of FY2011, which ends on September 30.

In essence, the unfolding story is that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate negotiators reached a tentative agreement on budget cuts, but conservative House "Tea Party" Republicans soundly rejected it and were not opposed to a government shutdown, at least for a few days, and would not compromise on their drive to make deep cuts. News reports quoting various Democratic Senate sources saying that agreement was close at hand would be quickly countered by House Republicans saying the opposite. In short, it has been quite chaotic.

Thus, a statement by the Democratic Vice President that the two sides have agreed on $73 billion in cuts from the FY2011 budget request may also fail to stand the test of time, but on a cold and rainy Washington evening, it is encouraging to read nonetheless. Still, the caveats are critically important. No agreement on where the cuts will be made, and no agreement on policy language that some House members want to include, such as defunding National Public Radio or Planned Parenthood. Those two issues alone could be deal breakers.

The House passed its version of a full year CR on February 19, cutting $61 billion from FY2010 spending (including a $601 million cut to NASA). The Senate rejected it, along with a Democratic alternative, leading to the current impasse.

One thing both sides appear to agree on is that there is no deal until there is a whole deal, so keep the champagne corked. At this point, however, any step forward, no matter how small or tentative, must be viewed as good news.

Policy Instability Biggest Obstacle to NASA's Exploration Program

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 30-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Witnesses at today's hearing by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics argued that the biggest obstacle to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) human space exploration program is policy instability. The relative priority given to either commercial- or government-developed and operated options to transition from the Space Shuttle to the next generation human space transportation system was the biggest issue of contention.

Committee members reiterated that through the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, Congress had explicitly laid out its preference for NASA to develop a heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) and a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) to explore beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) and to serve as backup for commercial crew transportation services to the International Space Station if those commercial services fail to materialize. "The debate is over," said Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), chairman of the full committee.

Nevertheless, the Administration's FY2012 budget request released in February, as well as subsequent statements from NASA officials, suggest a continuing lack of consensus on this issue. Providing an industry perspective, Mr. James Maser said that "this perilous unknown" renders the transition even riskier than the 1970's transition from Apollo to the space shuttle. "We need that vision, that commitment, that certainty right now," he urged, saying that industry is "ready to help any way we can but the clock is ticking." Mr. Maser is President of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, builder of the J-2X engine that was to be used for the Constellation program, but testified today in his capacity as chairman of the Corporate Membership committee of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

Mr. Doug Cooke, Associate Administrator of NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD), said that NASA is "aggressively addressing the specifics required in the Authorization Act," having already selected reference designs for both the HLLV and MPCV. He said that NASA hopes to provide Congress with specific timelines and decisions on the development of these vehicles in the next couple of months, potentially by late June.

Even with such assurances, some remained unconvinced that NASA was moving in a clear direction forward, particularly with respect to the requirements of the HLLV. While the Act requires the HLLV to provide a 130 ton lift capability, Mr. Maser pointed to recent statements by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden about how that capability may be unnecessary in the near term. As a result, said Mr. Maser, there is widespread "industry confusion" because what industry hears from NASA is only what it "does not want or cannot do."

Dr. Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a former NASA official, argued that this transition is "the most immediate and critical task" of the human spaceflight program, and also elaborated on the widespread effects of the confusion and uncertainty. To a question about how Congress can make the agency adhere to the law, Dr. Pace and others suggested that this direction ought to be reflected in the appropriations legislation. Acting-ranking member of the subcommittee Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL) said he agreed that the way to ensure the agency follows through with congressional direction "is through the appropriations process," and he urged the other members of the subcommittee to make certain that appropriators "understand that."

And Here it Is! First Image of Mercury from Orbit

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

As promised, NASA has released the first image of Mercury from a Mercury-orbiting spacecraft. The MESSENGER probe took the snapshot this morning.

NASA IG Issues Stern Warning to NASA About Computer Network Vulnerability

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report today warning that a key NASA computer network remains vulnerable to cyber attack almost a year after an earlier IG report identified the weaknesses and NASA vowed to fix them.

The report, "Inadequate Security Practices Expose Key NASA Network to Cyber Attack," concludes that "six computer servers associated with IT assets that control spacecraft and contain critical data had vulnerabilities that would allow a remote attacker to take control of or render them unavailable." The report goes on to say that once a hacker got inside the NASA network, "the attacker could use the compromised computers to exploit other weaknesses we identified, a situation that could severely degrade or cripple NASA's operations."

This new report notes that it had identified weaknesses in this network in a May 2010 report and "even though the Agency concurred with [our] recommendation it remained unimplemented as of February 2011. Until NASA addresses these critical deficiencies and impoves its IT security practices, the Agency is vulnerable to computer incidents that could have a severe to catastrophic effect on Agency assets, operations and personnel."

The May 2010 report, "Review of the Information Technology Security of [a NASA Computer Network]", is not available on the OIG website. Instead, the website to which one is directed provides a summary and states that the report contains data that is not usually released under the Freedom of Information Act. The name of the network in question is referred to in today's report as "NASA's Agency-wide mission network."

Today's report recommends that NASA "expedite implementation of our May 2010 recommendation to establish an IT security oversight program for NASA's Agency-wide mission network." It also recommends that NASA's Mission Directorates identify and continuously monitor Internet-accessible computers on that network and take prompt action to mitigate identified risks. Lastly it calls on the agency to conduct a NASA-wide IT security risk assessment.

The report states that NASA concurred with its recommendations and the Chief Information Officer and Mission Directorates agreed to complete them by the end of this summer.

MESSENGER Orbital Photos of Mercury Ready for Release

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA will release the first image of Mercury from an orbiting spacecraft tomorrow, and more images on Wednesday at a 2:00 pm EDT press conference. The images are from the MESSENGER spacecraft, the first to enter orbit around that planet, which is closest to the Sun.

MESSENGER attained Mercury orbit on March 17, 2011 after a six and a half year journey that included three fly-bys of the planet (plus two flybys of Venus and one of Earth) to get it into the proper position. The spacecraft already has sent back many images of Mercury, and now that it is in orbit can see previously unseen places. NASA's Mariner 10 probe was the first to fly past Mercury in 1974-1975.

The Wednesday teleconference will be streamed live at http://www.nasa.gov/newsaudio. Participants are MESSENGER principal investigator Sean Solomon and mission systems engineer Eric Finnegan.

Events of Interest: Week of March 28-April 1, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. For more information, see our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. Times, dates and witnesses for congressional hearings are subject to change. Check the relevant committee's website for up to date information.

During the Week

Members of the House and Senate return to Washington this week, with negotiations on the FY2011 budget still at the top of their to-do list. The current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires on April 8. Democrats and Republicans both complain about using short-term CRs to fund the government, but reports vary as to how well they are progressing in the negotiations for a "full year" CR to fund the rest of FY2011. "Full year" is a misnomer since even in the best of circumstances, it will fund only six months: April-September. Whatever cuts are made will have to be absorbed over that short time period instead of over a full year. President Obama's decision to enforce the U.N. no-fly zone resolution will complicate the negotiations not only because it means that the Department of Defense needs more money to execute that additional mission, but members on both sides of the aisle are peeved that the President did not consult with Congress before involving the country in this military action. Meanwhile, many hearings are scheduled on the FY2012 budget request,

Tuesday, March 29

  • Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on U.S. Strategic Command and U.S. European Command, 9:30 am EDT, G-50 Dirksen

Tuesday-Wednesday, March 29-30

Wednesday, March 30

Wednesday-Thursday, March 30-31

Thursday, March 31

Friday, April 1

Bolden Wants to Build Evolvable HLLV, Not the One Congress Wants

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told a Space Transportation Association luncheon on Capitol Hill today that he does not want to build the heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) specified in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 111-267).

In response to a question from NASAWatch editor Keith Cowing, Mr. Bolden explained that he does not think that the 130 metric ton lift capability prescribed in the law is necessary today and is not sure the agency can do it. He wants to build an "evolvable" launch vehicle, working in "small incremental steps [to] demonstrate that we can keep to cost and schedule and then people will begin to have confidence that we know what we're talking about.... There are things I do not know. ... I don't know what my 2011 budget is ... and that plays a critical role in what I can do."

The law reflects a compromise reached last year between Congress and the Administration on the future of the human spaceflight program. The President wants NASA to provide funding to companies to build a "commercial crew" capability to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station in low Earth orbit (LEO) instead of NASA. NASA would purchase crew launch services from those companies. In the President's plan, NASA meanwhile would focus on developing technologies to enable astronauts to someday go beyond LEO, to asteroids or Mars, for example.

Congress, however, is skeptical that the commercial sector is ready to take on that responsibility, and wants the United States to have a bold program of human exploration that includes missions beyond LEO sooner, not later. The 2010 NASA Authorization Act took a middle ground, approving some funding for NASA to facilitate commercial crew, but also directing NASA to build its own Space Launch System (SLS) and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). They would serve as a backup to the commercial companies for LEO access and also provide the beyond LEO capabilities Congress wants.

Although it is unusual for Congress to dictate detailed technical parameters in law, in this case it did, telling NASA that the new SLS (also known as a heavy lift launch vehicle - HLLV) must have an initial launch capability of 70-100 metric tons, increasing to at least 130 metric tons with the addition of an integrated upper stage. The law authorized funding levels for the SLS, MPCV, and commercial crew.

President Obama's FY2012 budget request for NASA has been sharply criticized by House and Senate authorizers because they feel it contravenes the law, however. It requests more money than authorized for commercial crew, and less money than authorized for SLS and MPCV. NASA's official position is that it is doing the best it can under current budget constraints and complying with the major elements of the law.

Mr. Bolden's frank comment therefore could be considered controversial. Mr. Cowing gave the Administrator an opportunity to clarify his remark, but Mr. Bolden stated again that he does not want to build the launch vehicle directed in the Act. Conflicts between Congress and the President over how to spend taxpayer dollars are not unusual, but the Constitution gives Congress the "power of the purse" to decide how to spend government funds. That is done through authorization and appropriations acts. The former give permission for a program to begin and recommends funding levels; appropriations bills actually provide the money. Congress, however, so far has been unable to reach agreement on FY2011 funding for NASA or any other government department or agency making the situation extremely complex.

Good Night, Stardust, and Thanks

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

NASA terminated operations of the Stardust spacecraft today, bringing its 12 year mission to a close.

Launched in February 1999, Stardust captivated scientists and the public by transmitting photographs of Comet Wild 2 and returning samples of dust from it -- stardust. The sample canister was successfully dropped off at Earth in 2006 while the mother spacecraft continued its flight through space. That gave scientists an opportunity to assign the spacecraft a new mission -- studying another comet that just had been visited by NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft.

In that mission, an impactor was deployed from Deep Impact and placed into the path of Comet Tempel 1 to cause a collision. The mother Deep Impact spacecraft studied the material that was ejected during the collision, as well as relaying data and photographs from the impactor as the collision approached. Now scientists would have a chance to return and take additional photographs of the crater that the impactor created along with parts of the comet that Deep Impact could not see.

Rechristened Stardust-NExT, the spacecraft successfully returned to Comet Temple 1 on February 14, 2011 and sent back photographs and data that are still being analyzed.

As its final task, the spacecraft was commanded to burn all of its remaining fuel so engineers on Earth could calculate how much was left after its 3.54 billion -- yes, billion -- mile journey. They want to compare their estimates of the fuel required for such a mission with what was actually used, but there are "no fully reliable fuel gauges for spacecraft in the weightless environment of space" according to NASA. The data are expected to be useful when planning future missions.

Like Stardust, Deep Impact was given a second mission after its successful encounter with Comet Tempel 1. Renamed EPOXI, it studied Comet Hartley 2. Scientists want to learn more about comets because they hold clues to what happened in the early formation of our solar system.

Stardust-NExT program manager Lindley Johnson said that although this is the end of spacecraft operations, it is "just the beginnings of what this spacecraft's accomplishments will give to planetary science."

Administration Misread Congressional Mood Again With FY2012 Budget Request, Say WIA Panelists

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 24-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

During a discussion today at the Library of Congress organized by Women in Aerospace (WIA), panelists compared the Obama Administration's FY2012 budget request with the priorities laid out in the 2010 National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Authorization Act. Most argued that the request represents a mismatch in funding priorities and raises a lot of concern.

One panelist, referring to the "unrest" caused by the FY2011 budget request last year, said that "once again the administration misread the mood of Congress" and that the FY2012 request has "absolutely zero chance of being approved by Congress."

The event, titled "The NASA Authorization Act of 2010: How Did We Get Here? What's Next?" took place under the Chatham House rule that prohibits identifying who said what. Instead, "participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed." The names of the panelists were circulated by WIA, however. All are congressional staff except for one person from NASA.

The Authorization Act was described as a compromise between the Administration and Congress, the culmination of a difficult process that eventually gave NASA "a clear direction." Nevertheless, some panelists believe that the FY2012 request released last month diverges from the Act by proposing a reduction to the authorized funding for development of a new launch vehicle and crew capsule (called Human Space Capabilities in the budget request) for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit, but an increase over the authorized amount for the commercial crew transportation initiative. Participants said that Congress would continue imposing strong oversight to ensure that the priorities laid out in the Act are met. One panelist stated that the Administration should not believe that there is a pathway forward different from what was directed in the Act, adding that there is "no interest in renegotiating that framework."

While Congress will have its say on the FY2012 budget request in the coming months, uncertainty remains about FY2011, which is being funded by a series of short-term Continuing Resolutions (CRs). One participant, while offering no good news with respect to the likelihood of a budget being approved for the balance of the year, said that cuts included in H.R. 1 were prompted by an emphasis on deficit reduction and not by targeting NASA or other agencies specifically. On a cautionary note, though, the panelist added that stakeholders should be well aware of the impacts of these "across-the-board-cuts" on specific programs, as these will probably continue. H.R. 1 was a full-year CR that passed the House last month, but was defeated in the Senate.

With budget constraints the order of the day for the foreseeable future, another panelist agreed that there would be no "major plus-ups" for NASA or any other agency in the coming years, except perhaps the Department of Defense. The way forward, this person suggested, is to implement the direction already agreed upon in the Authorization Act.

JAXA's Tsukuba Space Centre Resumes Operations

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) resumed control of its Kibo module and KOUNOTORI cargo spacecraft from the Tsukuba Space Centre at 4:00 pm JST (Japan Standard Time) March 22. Operations were temporarily transferred to NASA after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

JAXA said the space center had been closed due to "damage and security issues caused the earthquake."

Kibo is Japan's laboratory that is an integrated component of the International Space Station (ISS). KOUNOTORI, more commonly known as HTV-2, is a cargo spacecraft temporarily berthed to the ISS. It is scheduled to unberth on March 29 JST and reenter on March 30 JST. The spacecraft is not designed to survive reentry and will burn up in the atmosphere.

Events of Interest    

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »


 

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